After I launched this blog, one of my very best friends reminded me that the reason lots of moms make the choices they do, including buying organic, is because they’re trying to do their very best to reduce their children’s exposure to chemicals they see as harmful. She said, “If you can reduce their exposure just a little bit, doesn’t that make sense?”
I agree – it makes perfect sense. Sometimes.
I’m no different than any other parent. I want to minimize my kids’ risk, I want them to be safe, and I hope that I’m making good, informed choices. One of the most difficult parts of being a parent is bearing the burden of making decision for someone’s long-term future without any input from them. I find that overwhelming at times; it’s scary thinking you might make the wrong choices.
What some people don’t appreciate, though, is that the choices we make have far-reaching effects. While this is true to some extent in many contexts, this is especially true with food.
For many things, like avoiding sun exposure, the only people impacted by your decisions are you and your family. But with food, you’re impacting the entire agricultural system, from the marketers who are trying to say things on the package that consumers might want to hear, to the breeders who make selections based on what they think consumers want, to the people across the world who just want food at all. When you vote for organic with your pocketbook, it impacts a connected system that we share on a global level. Agriculture relies on our shared, finite resources like water and land.
This is where the challenge of making decisions becomes even harder, because sometimes what seems like a no-brainer turns out to be more complicated. The only way to solve it, I think, is to properly evaluate the risk against the benefit. People are willing to take extreme risks with their safety when they can experience a clear benefit. For example, one of the biggest risks we take every day is getting into a car. According to the CDC, accidents or unintentional injuries is the fifth leading cause of death in the United Sates. Motor vehicle accidents make up the largest part of that category; more than 33,000 people died in a motor vehicle accident in 2010. Yet most of us strap our kids into a car almost every single day. We take that risk because we can see a clear benefit. As consumers, we don’t see the benefit of conventional farming, but we think we can identify a risk, so it seems easy to make that choice.
The benefit is there, but we just might not see it. Conventional farming yields 25 percent more, on average, than organic farming. That means for every acre of land that’s farmed organically, we could be feeding a quarter more people if we used conventional methods. Not only that, but organic farming reduces the efficiency of all the inputs required to grow food: water, fertilizer, pesticides (yes, organic farmers also use pesticide), and fuel (to plant, manage, harvest and to transport the food).
If we had infinite resources this wouldn’t be an issue, but we don’t, and it is an issue. The amount of land that we commit to agriculture is shrinking as our population grows. The FAO projects our population will grow by one third between 2009 and 2050 and predicts we’ll need to raise food production by about 70 percent over that time. This feat will take all the tools we have, and that includes technology. I’m not saying that organic farming doesn’t have a place in that, it surely does. Having the choice to buy organic is a luxury in the United States, and I’m OK with having choices. But we need to be encouraging the overall system to be sustainable and efficient; using the fewest resources necessary to responsibly get the most out of every acre. If a farmer can do that, but doesn’t qualify for “USDA certified organic,” we should be voting for that.
When the choices that we make at the supermarket start a movement that impacts those in other parts of the world who don’t really have the luxury of choice, I’m not OK with it. There are farmers in India that really don’t have the luxury of farming organically; they need every bushel to feed their family. There are starving people in Africa that would love to have our conventionally farmed produce, because it would be food to feed mouths.
I can’t complete this post without harping on another fact: let’s acknowledge the fact that organic farmers also use pesticide. They use organic pesticides, but they’re still pesticides. Classifying a pesticide as “organic” does not mean that pesticide is harmless or even safe. As with any pesticide, what matters is how much residue is present compared to how toxic that residue is. You simply cannot grow crops without controlling weeds and bugs – any backyard gardener knows this. My first year gardening in the Pacific Northwest, I lost an entire head of romaine lettuce literally overnight to slugs because I didn’t know I had to apply slug repellent. I’m working on a more in-depth story on organic pesticides, so stay tuned for that, but remember that organic is not equivalent to pesticide-free.
I empathize with parents who choose organic because they’re trying to avoid exposure to pesticide. I understand what you’re aiming to do, but the benefit to your family (if any) doesn’t outweigh the risk to the global food supply. As I outlined in a previous post, there isn’t a real risk when you eat conventional produce, but there is a real benefit: efficiency in the use of our shared resources. And the availability and affordability of food for our children, our children’s children, and children in other parts of the world you will never meet but should probably care about, is a clear benefit.